On Friday, the Washington Post offered up its typical balance on the "Washington FORUM" page two articles by former Bush administration officials (Hank Paulson and Michael Gerson) and two articles by prominent neocons (Robert Kagan and Max Boot). But Boot's opinion piece advocating never-ending largesse for the U.S. military was perhaps the most insidious.
Boot constructed what purported to be a historical narrative demonstrating why it was always a mistake for the U.S. government to trim back its standing army, arguing that such cutbacks caused troubles from the Whiskey Rebellion after the Revolutionary War to George W. Bush's botched occupation of Iraq.
The lesson, according to Boot, is to maintain a very large military even after a major conflict ends and to view the current defense budget which is approaching nearly half of what the entire world spends on military costs as "a bargain considering the historic consequences of letting our guard down."
And Boot is not just some obscure neocon hawk. He is Gen. David Petraeus's BFF. In one recently publicized e-mail exchange between them, they discussed how the general could back away from his congressional testimony which mildly criticized Israel. At the end of one e-mail, Petraeus thanked Boot with a sideways happy face made from a colon, a hyphen and a closed parenthesis, :-) .
Boot also is employed by the powerful Council on Foreign Relations, so his writings are treated with great respect in Washington opinion circles.
However, Boot's excursion into alternative history was intellectually dishonest. After all, the problem with imagining a different history i.e. assuming that an altered course of action would have averted some later crisis is that no one can tell whether that's true or whether some other negative consequence might have resulted from the alternative scenario.
For instance, the American Founders were profoundly suspicious of large standing armies and the powerful executives (usually a king) who directed them. They knew European history and the devastation that these armies could inflict on both targeted "enemy" populations and their own people, given the taxation and conscripts needed for war.
So, when the Founders opted for a Republic, they placed most of the power in the hands of the legislators in Congress, not with the chief executive, the President. The accompanying decision to maintain a relatively modest professional army and navy was deliberate, out of concern that otherwise the President might be tempted to use the military to assert dictatorial powers.
And even if a dictatorship didn't result, a large military would surely be a temptation for generals, admirals and an ambitious "war president" to entangle the United States in unnecessary conflicts.
Consequences from such rash military actions and the unavoidable trampling of civil liberties that comes with war could have been far more destructive to the Republic than the challenges that Boot blames on a smaller military, such as having to fight the Barbary pirates and the War of 1812 in the nation's early years or the failure to stop the "anti-American revolutions in Nicaragua and Iran" in the 1970s.
Indeed, the fact that Boot suggests that the post-Vietnam drawdown of the U.S. military was partly responsible for the defeat of corrupt pro-U.S. dictators in Nicaragua and Iran reveals the underlying danger of his argument. Is he suggesting that a larger imperial American military would have intervened in those civil wars to prop up client dictators?
Apparently, in Boot's view, the answer is yes. After the failed war in Vietnam with 58,000 Americans and millions of Indochinese dead he seems to think that the United States should have been ready to send expeditionary forces to Nicaragua and to Iran to suppress popular uprisings.
What Boot and other neocons envision for American citizens is endlessly footing the bill for a global police force, one that would wage war anytime and anywhere to defend some vaguely defined U.S. interest, essentially what President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney set off to do after the 9/11 attacks with catastrophic results.
Yet that is not a lesson the neocons have learned.
Appreciating the Founders
Considering the interminable wars that the neocons favor and the painful side effects on the American people one has a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of the Founders in their effort to balance the need for an adequate defense against the negatives that accompany a bloated war machine.